• Catherine Mayer

Winning the battles, losing the plot: an avoidable tragedy

Updated: Oct 10

Grief isn’t just the price of love—it’s the tithe for living. If losing my husband and stepfather at the start of the pandemic brought the first point home in brutal fashion, the lockdowns that followed reinforced the second. Vanishingly few people will escape these plague years whole of heart. Many of us said goodbyes, to friends and family, to people we didn’t know but whose stories moved us, to opportunities, livelihoods, freedoms and dreams.

All these things hurt, but a special and terrible sadness attaches to the avoidable tragedies that clutter the recent past. Think of the rollcall of lives that are now hashtags: Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, Gabby Petito and more. Remember, too, the multiple recent outrages that casually and callously anonymised their victims, the toll of preventable Covid deaths, for example, or the political misjudgments that left vulnerable Afghanis stranded in the dust clouds of departing flights.

It’s ironic that a common response to horrors of this immensity is to take to social media. It is here, amid the funny dances and witty tropes, that another avoidable tragedy is most visibly unfurling, serious and sad and deeply damaging however slyly it cloaks itself in apparent trivialities such as debates about who should be the next James Bond. Malign populism is surging across the world and what are we doing to stop it? Everywhere, movements that might be expected to unite in resistance are instead fighting each other and among themselves.

Every night I dream of lost love only to wake to fears of further loss. My anxiety is by no means exclusively focused on the women’s movement, but my involvement as the co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party means a daily confrontation with the fact of these battles. For combatants, the brawls in this area of activism—currently most fiercely focused on sex and gender—appear essential and existential. To me, in my bubble of grief, they look avoidable and, yes, existential, but also in the sense that they risk being destructive to precisely the aims and constituencies they are meant to champion. It is crucial to define what you stand against. It is also vital to stand together for common goals, and that is a tougher proposition.

This is what prompted Sandi Toksvig and me to set up WEP in 2015, with the twin aims of challenging old-style parties to do better for women and of building a movement that transcended party politics to turbocharge progress. We signalled this approach by opening membership to members of other political parties. It wasn’t that we thought the differences between parties or political beliefs insignificant, far from it, but because we knew that the first-past-the-post system marginalises the already marginalised, maximises divisions and penalises the painstaking work of building coalitions for change. We set out core objectives that were deliberately uncontroversial inasmuch as mainstream parties in theory already supported some or all of them: equal representation, equal pay, equality in education, health, caregiving and in the media, and an end to violence against women and girls. Our party’s radicalism resided in the policies we devised to attain these objectives, our relentless insistence on gender-aware politics and economics, and our understanding of the systemic and structural nature of inequality.

This last analysis may not have been shared by the handful of old-style conservatives who sat around the table in WEP’s early days, helping create the party alongside greater numbers of veteran activists of the left and people entirely new to politics. Feminists of the centre-right do not always accept that addressing inequality means unpicking the systems that benefit from it. Does this mean that these passionate women shouldn’t have been made welcome? Advocacy never succeeds if it aspires only to harness those who already agree. Organisations and movements benefit from challenge, not groupthink, and nobody comes to issues with their opinions fully formed or informed. I find it hard to think of any complex topic on which my own views have not shifted and expanded through exposure to argument and ideas, however uncomfortable.

So far, you may be thinking, so predictable: an older woman (I turned 60 this year) taking issue with the hardline certainties typically associated with younger activists. As it happens, my sympathies are in many ways more closely aligned with fifth than second-wave feminism—and no, I won’t expand on that observation here, much less on social media. A key driver of polarisation is the over-compression of complicated debates into soundbites and slogans, tweets and throwaway lines.

In this respect, too, I possibly diverge from expectations of my age group in that I’m also sympathetic to the impulse, characteristic of most online debates, to close down and drown out, even as I set out the case for not doing so. The same platforms we use to vent our sorrow and organise resistance also amplify hatreds, rocket-launch misinformation, inflict pain and incite violence. The desire to try to silence some of that cacophony is understandable, a reality exponents of free speech (and I am one) too rarely acknowledge or viscerally understand. It’s easy to be a free-speech defender if you’re not in the firing line. The sticks and stones of online abuse neither reliably remain in the virtual world nor are remotely evenly distributed. Words hurt, in very real ways.

There are good reasons, though, not to reflexively fight with people pedding views you consider wrong, even abhorrent. For once thing, you might actually help to promote their offending messages by giving them oxygen. As I wrote this post, the Nobel committee announced as a joint winner of this year’s Peace Prize Maria Ressa, whose work not only demonstrates how critical it is to defend free speech, but how difficult it is to do so when, as she puts it, social media represents “an atom bomb exploding in our information ecosystem”.

This is something the shameless populist right knows and weaponizes, tempting us with their open lies and deliberate provocations to deplete our energies in expressions of anger that will only serve their ends. The “war on woke” as fought on Facebook or Twitter is fatally asymmetrical, the ranks of the well-intentioned cannon fodder to grinning provocateurs and grinding bots and algorithms. Cancel culture does exist, but the truly cancelled are those hounded off platforms, not the high profile figures routinely invited to give broadcast interviews about criticisms they’ve endured.

The rise of social media is by no means the only cause of polarisation, but it is a key cause, the architecture of many platforms enforcing and rewarding division (and, according to Frances Haugen’s testimony, profiting from it). Old media follows its toxic lead in casting every debate as a punch-up. Any effective mitigations, however, whether they lie with regulators and politicians or the companies themselves, will be a long time coming.

This poses a challenge to any of us who are trying actively, and with apologies for the sappy phrase, to build a better world. How should we develop movements when such powerful external forces conspire to splinter them? How should we conduct conversations without kindling the flames of antipathy or boosting misinformation? Recently I held back from retweeting reports of mounting evidence that Covid vaccines might affect menstruation, for fear that these reports would be misappropriated by anti-vaxxers. Confected scare stories cost lives. Evidence-based concerns need to be aired. An open question for me is how to do this constructively. I don’t know the answer, but there are some situations where less is definitely more. Jousting with trolls is beyond pointless; it’s harmful. Attempting to win a battle in a single tweet or even a lengthy thread is as likely to push your opponents into more extreme positions. This isn’t about being silenced. It’s about productive advocacy.

Just as people claiming to “empower” women should earn automatic mistrust (by what authority or, whisper it, privilege do they hold the authority to confer power?), so too we should be suspicious of demands that we take “sides”. Those “sides” imply a binary that is often misleading and worse, destructive. Over-simplification routinely maims important discussions. As someone of Jewish descent (and even if I weren’t), I am in no doubt that antisemitism is racism. I would also say that it is different in its forms and many of its impacts to anti-black racism and other racisms. Identifying it and meaningfully fighting it requires detail and nuance.

Ah, you will say, but even if there aren’t sides, there must be red lines, zero tolerance for hatreds. I agree, but again there are so many questions. Do you believe people can change (and, if not, why are you an activist)? Where exactly do we draw those red lines? I don’t have solutions here either, and the more polarised our world becomes, the harder I find it to remain open to different viewpoints, to practise what I tediously preach. That’s in part because the bear traps of public debate put me on the defensive, but it’s also because of the ways in which the ground has shifted. Working with old-style conservatives made sense in some instances. Engaging with the post-truth hard right does not and never will. Its project is the destruction of the rights and protections fundamental to equality.

If, like me, you still believe in movement building, the next question is how to do it. Believe me, I understand the exhaustion of activists who, instead of for the umpteenth time attempting to explain their motivations and purpose to a person blundering unblooded into the arena, sigh “just do the work”. The ignoble history of equality movements all too often sees the victims of inequality expected to shoulder the burden of making change, while supposed allies showboat or side with the oppressors. Bigotry, however, is fed by fear—and nothing feeds fear as calorie-rich a diet as a lack of knowledge. Look at the voting populations that tend to support hard-right anti-immigration parties, and you’ll find these communities are often remarkably homogenous, hostile to foreigners precisely because they have little or no real-life experience against which to weigh their prejudices.

This phenomenon is by no means restricted to this issue or to lower-income or less educated demographics. Anyone who observed the official Remain campaign failing to fire up opposition to Brexit saw a bunch of affluent people, almost all men and boasting the best educations money can buy, so profoundly innocent of the reasons why voters might want to kick the establishment that they roped in big business to articulate the case for staying in the EU. Seldom have I seen a more eloquent argument for greater diversity in politics.

To return to an earlier point, the value of diversity to organisations and legislatures resides in bringing to every discussion the widest possible range of skills, thinking and experience. Listening to voices that challenge yours, that perhaps offend, maybe even deny your identity or values, isn’t easy. It’s not always the right thing to do. Sometimes you can only stand against. Sometimes you must protect yourself and others.

My final questions relate to what that really means. Ask yourself this: will you further your objectives by blotting out that grating voice, by insisting on purity rather than plurality, by fighting or refusing to engage at all? What can you do to make a meaningful difference not just in this particular moment but further down the line? To quote Facebook (irony klaxon), it’s complicated.

This much is clear: in my lifetime, feminism has never been more divided or more needed. The same is true of other equality movements. I have seen too much grief in the past 20 months to stand by and watch this slow-motion tragedy rumble towards its disastrous conclusion without attempting an intervention. If only I knew what to do. Consider this rambling blog post a start.

Image and words ©Catherine Mayer 2021

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